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Early Nevada caucuses turn heads West

Times Staff Writer

Forget the jokes about caucusing in brothels, or trawling for votes amid the slot machines and blackjack tables along the neon-drenched Strip.

When Democratic presidential hopefuls come calling on Nevada, the real challenge will be the party faithful they find in this independent-minded state, which will host the West’s first nominating contest in a little over a year.

Democrats here like guns, loathe taxes and see nature as a source of fun and profit, not a place that some Washington bureaucrat should lock away. And skip the Rust Belt rhetoric about all those manufacturing jobs fleeing to China and Mexico. Economic issues require a different approach in a state that has boomed for the last 40 years.

“If you give the same speech on the economy in Nevada that you give in Iowa, you’re going to seem out of touch,” said Eric Herzik, who teaches political science at the University of Nevada in Reno.

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“A lack of knowledge,” he added, “can offend quicker than anything.”

Nevada represents the leading edge in a political shift, as the Rocky Mountain West becomes the new battleground in presidential politics. Democrats, hoping to bring a fresh voice to their nominating process and give candidates a head start on the fall campaign, have set Nevada’s caucuses for Jan. 19, 2008.

It is the first time any Western state has had so much influence so early: Nevada will go second, after the Iowa caucuses begin the presidential balloting a few days earlier. And if the state’s leading Democrats have their way, what happens in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas.

“This is seen as a very, very unique opportunity to get the presidential candidates on the record on Western issues and put them in the national arena early,” said Billy Vassiliadis, one of Nevada’s political power brokers and the impresario behind Las Vegas’ sly marketing slogan. “Instead of talking about manufacturing jobs and farm subsidies, we’ll be discussing public lands, infrastructure needs, ranching, mining and water, water, water.”

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On Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and national labor leaders announced plans for five candidate forums in Nevada, starting next month in Carson City.

For some Democrats, campaigning here may require them to learn a new way of talking -- starting with the pronunciation of the state. It’s Ne-VAD-uh, not Ne-VAH-duh, which may seem like a small thing unless you live here.

Beyond that, Nevada is a state with a strong libertarian streak. Burdened with a hostile terrain, it found its salvation in sin: gambling, legal prostitution (outside the metropolitan areas) and quickie marriages and divorces. Although that makes for a broad-minded social policy, it also translates into an aversion toward big government and its costs.

There is no state income tax, no corporate or inheritance taxes and no great affection for Nevada’s major overseer, the federal government, which control’s 90% of the state’s land. That makes the environment, usually a Democratic strong suit, a tricky issue.

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“People will say we can’t allow species to be exterminated,” said Chris Wicker, chairman of the Washoe County Democratic Party in Reno. “But they’re not going to march in the street for the desert tortoise.”

Other national issues play differently as well. Talk of energy independence focuses on wind and solar power, not corn-based ethanol, which fuels the discussion in the Midwest. It’s fine to discuss gun safety -- more than one in three Nevada households keep at least one firearm -- but don’t bring up anything that impinges on gun ownership.

Economic concerns, such as transit, land-use and water policy, stem from Nevada’s staggering growth -- each month, about 5,000 people move to the Las Vegas area alone. The exact number is uncertain -- experts can’t keep up -- and the political ramifications are also unclear.

Many of the newcomers are Latinos attracted by an abundance of service-industry jobs. But they register to vote in relatively small numbers. Senior citizens also make up a large percentage of new arrivals, but many combine social conservatism with a reliance on big government programs such as Social Security.

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“It’s a mystery,” said Michael Green, a historian who has written several books on Nevada.

The issues are nothing like the challenges that confront fading sections of the Northeast. Danny Thompson, head of Nevada’s AFL-CIO, jokes that “the tower crane is the state bird.” On a recent day, more than a dozen of the construction towers were visible from Tropicana Avenue, where the Statue of Liberty meets a gargantuan MGM lion on the Las Vegas Strip.

In addition, Nevada has its own set of issues, particularly nuclear waste disposal. For more than 20 years, state politicians have fought the federal government over a proposed radioactive dump at Yucca Mountain, a ridge of volcanic rock and ash about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. With Reid leading the fight as Senate majority leader, the only question is how vehement fellow Democrats will be in their opposition.

Gaming -- as gambling is called here -- is another crucial issue. Any attempt to increase the industry’s hefty tax burden, or ban wagering on college sports, would not be welcomed. And candidates stumping in the rural north would do well to appreciate the resentment many feel toward the rapidly expanding, water-guzzling south. (Think San Francisco versus Los Angeles)

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“It’s more a fight across geographic lines than between the parties,” Herzik said.

The state’s Democrats face their own challenge in building a caucus system from the desert floor up. (The GOP is still deciding its nominating calendar; some jealous Nevada Republicans would like to push their vote forward to match Democrats’ early start.)

Four years ago, about 8,500 Democrats participated in Nevada’s caucuses, which fell in mid-February, after the nomination was more or less decided. There were 17 voting sites, or one per county, in a state that sprawls over nearly 110,000 square miles -- much of it vast stretches given over to scrub and wild horses.

In 2008, organizers hope to provide about 1,000 voting sites for as many as 100,000 Democrats, with most of the action expected in the population centers of Las Vegas and Reno.

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Organized labor helped lure the Democrats to Nevada -- the state is one of the few places where membership is growing -- and unions are expected to play a major role in the caucuses, even before delivering any endorsements. Thompson said labor hoped to turn out more than a quarter of its 200,000 statewide members and had begun compiling an events calendar so that if visiting candidates want to, say, address a group of seniors, they can find a forum.

The Democrats have hired experienced hands from Iowa to oversee the caucuses, along with a team of national political strategists. The state’s gambling industry and other business interests are being tapped to finance the operation. Nobody wants to stumble in the spotlight, or embarrass Reid, Nevada’s senior Democrat.

Still, it is unclear how vigorously the Democratic presidential hopefuls will compete. No one is abandoning Iowa or New Hampshire -- the leadoff caucus and primary states, respectively -- to take up residence in Sparks or Elko. But no one is talking about ignoring Nevada, either. A one-two sweep of Iowa and Nevada could make nationally known candidates such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois or former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina unstoppable heading into New Hampshire’s primary, tentatively set for three days after Nevada’s caucuses.

Other Democratic hopefuls have their own incentives to do well. For former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Nevada could provide an important test of strength outside his home state. For New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Nevada offers a chance to capitalize on his standing as the lone Westerner in the Democratic field.

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“The West is crucial for Democrats,” said Mike Stratton, a Richardson advisor who served on the committee that retooled the party’s nominating calendar. “Candidates will have to understand the Western ethos and they’ll have to speak it.”

For all Nevada’s differences, there are some topics that visiting Democrats will recognize. Immigration has begun to boil as an issue -- the state’s Latino population has grown by 44% in the last five years. The war in Iraq is a concern. And, like voters everywhere, Nevadans care about jobs, education, affordable healthcare and a comfortable retirement.

“You’ll be talking to different people than in Iowa and New Hampshire, no doubt,” said Jon Ralston, the state’s leading political pundit. “But there are plenty of blue-collar workers in union halls. And, hey, showgirls and blackjack dealers are people, too.”

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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